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Chris Rock and the White Elephant in the Room

Kieran, here with an extremely stream-of-conscious analysis of the racial politics of last night's ceremony. Bear with me, gentle reader...

Chris Rock was in an unenviable position.  It’s important to begin with that point because, as Nathaniel has pointed out many times, it’s nearly impossible to get positive reviews as an Oscar host in real time. Even briefly setting aside the identity politics firestorm of stepping into a predominantly white space as a black person, it usually takes at least a year (if not longer) for positive consensus to settle around how an Oscar host performed his or her duties. But let’s get to the white elephant in the room—Chris Rock’s handling of #Oscarssowhite (a hashtag created by activist April Reign). There were many who seemed to be expecting Chris Rock to be some kind of attack-dog, which I will never understand. That’s never been his style and even if it were his style, what does that accomplish?

Chris Rock shaming and berating the audience intermittently for four hours doesn’t move the needle in terms of fair representation in Hollywood. It ensures Rock never gets hired by AMPAS (and probably other companies as well). It sends those who are resentful and resistant to progress home with even more angry resolve in their refusal to accept change. In the era where declarative statements are king, it may be unsatisfying to hear the ceremony’s handling of the Academy’s contentious racial discourse, at least from this Oscar-watcher’s perspective, was a mixed bag. There were certain gags and explorations of interpersonal racial politics that genuinely landed well (the about-face of that Angela Bassett-Jack Black moment was great) and were revealing of something deeper beyond the scope of the ceremony. Conversely, there were elements that fell embarrassingly flat on their face. 

Rock’s talking to black movie-going audiences segment has many layers to it, despite seeming rote (which it is in many way). I usually feel very protective when it comes to black people as candid interview subjects, whether it’s for overtly comedic gags or it’s for the local 6 o’clock news. It often feels predatory and there was some of that feeling this time around. The interview subjects general lack of knowledge about the Oscar-nominated Best Pictures surely garnered incredulous chuckles and mocking from a lot of the people in the room. But it does reveal a divide with outreach that actually goes both ways and I wish Rock had taken the extra step to convey that. Firstly, the notion that a lack of knowledge of Oscar-nominated films is a uniquely Black “problem” (if it is indeed a problem) is patently false. There were many white attendees at the Oscar-watching party I attended in Los Angeles who hadn’t seen or even heard of more than half of the nominated films. Chris Rock could have chosen a random shopping mall anywhere in America and found a slew of people of all demographics who haven't heard of more than two of the Best Picture nominees. How many white theater-goers, even ones who routinely make a point of seeing prestige fare (and maybe even work in the industry) skipped Beyond the Lights last year, or only caught it on the tail end of its run because they were finally assured, despite having black stars, that it was "okay" to watch? And lest we bring the box office or scale-of-project argument into the mix, how many theater-goers did the same thing with Straight Outta Compton or (more gallingly) Creed this year? I frankly think the disproportionately vigorous vetting process that "minority" films are subjected to in order to be considered prestige is a huge problem and gets to the heart of implicit structural discrimination of all kinds in Hollywood. It's certainly more worthy of discussion than black people at a theater in Compton not having heard of Brooklyn, which (again) can be argued is a problem of outreach and the way certain films are marketed.

There was a key moment in Rock’s opening monologue where he seemed to be a bit out to sea and at cross purposes with what he was trying to accomplish. Rock is usually very smart and insightful when it comes to explorations of race. I have to believe he very quickly came up with his “Black people didn’t care about the Oscars during the Civil Rights movement because there were bigger things to worry about” (I’m paraphrasing) segment. On first blush it may seem like a joke with a lot of things to mine, but it’s a poorly examined point and falls apart for several different reasons. It feeds into this idea of binary thinking that has too long plagued conversations. This notion that people can’t hold two (or more) ideas and concerns at the same time. Let’s be very clear—there were Black actors working during the Civil Rights movement. Actors like Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis (the list goes on). Many of these people were actively involved in aspects of the Civil Rights movement. I promise you these performers were thinking about the Oscars and racial politics in Hollywood at large while the Civil Rights movement was happening. The latter frankly informed the former and they were artists who cared about representation. You can’t really separate the two. Politics are personal and for an artist of color there’s nothing more personal than how racial politics enhance or inhibit your ability to create art. One could potentially see what Chris Rock was going for, trying to put things into perspective with the “When your grandmother is hanging from a tree, you’re not really thinking about Best Documentary Short Subject”. However, in a year where there has been so much uproar about the general lack of non-white representation in Hollywood, the Oscars really weren’t the venue to essentially make the intellectually bankrupt “art is not that important” implication. Particularly on the back of Rock’s “We just want the opportunity and not just once” sentiment, which was poignant and truthful.

That “we just want the opportunity and not just once” moment felt like a missed opportunity (ha) to talk about…well, opportunity. The fact that of all the non-white actors who have won Oscars, not one of them has won for a part that was not ascribed to that performer’s race on the page (and I'll hear arguments about Whoopi's Oda Mae Brown, but I disagree) never gets discussed. Not to take anything away from any of those performances. I’m not on the reductive “I’m sick of seeing stories about maids and slaves” wavelength because maids and slaves are human beings too and their stories are no less valid than anyone else’s. But why does it seem such a tall order for Hollywood to produce and the Academy to reward a movie like Still Alice about a black woman when black people get Alzheimer’s too? Why is it hard to envision Hollywood producing and AMPAS rewarding a movie like Black Swan were it about a Latina ballet dancer when steadfast, often dangerous commitment to one’s art is universal? It’s maybe not a sexy or funny point, but it’s one I could have imagined Chris Rock making deftly if he had gone there and it would have given this room full of directors, writers, producers, casting directors and executives some real food for thought. I’m grateful for the conversation about representation in the Academy and Hollywood at large and here’s hoping for deeper, more full examinations and harder more useful questions that get at the heart of who we exclusively tell stories about, why that is and constructive ways to expand those parameters. And no, openly trotting out the tired stereotype that Asians are good at math while waxing comedic about inclusion is not constructive...or comedic, for that matter.

These danishes is good, girl!"


Funniest Gag: I know it’s silly and there’s not a lot of analysis to it, but Tracy Morgan’s Danish Girl moment made me cackle so loud and so long. Plus, given what Morgan has gone through, it's always a joy to see him show up places even further along the road to recovery.

Worst/Weirdest/In Poorest Taste Gag: Stacey Dash’s “Happy Black History Month” moment. I imagine that there were a lot of people in the audience who simply didn’t understand who she was. Of the people who did know who she was, how many were aware of what she now represents in terms of the worst respectability politics in the black community? Not many, I’m guessing. And (maybe I'm reading into it too much) but the look on her face signaled a person having it thrown into sharp relief the reality of her position in Hollywood, or the outskirts of Hollwood as is more accurate.  Just poorly thought out from soup to nuts. 

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Reader Comments (39)

the Stacey Dash moment will be puzzled over and studied and followed... forever.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy

Thanks for continuing the conversation. I was thrilled by the bravery of diving headfirst into the issues at the outset of the show but as it continued and there wasn't a smart or even glancing reference to other kinds of diversity than just the black/white binary, I started to feel uneasy. (How interesting would it have been to put one arab actor into the filmed comedic bits alongside Tracy Morgan? Or make fun of the double standard with women?) By the time we got to the misguided asian kids joke and the winking "don't make fun of the gays" jibes, I felt like the cry for inclusivity was awfully exclusive.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Tom -- THIS. But i've had so many disconcerting conversations this season with people who only seem to think diversity is important when it involves black actors. It's very puzzling considering that intersectionality was something *that seemed like* people were beginning to understand was crucial in our very diverse world. But perhaps it only seemed like that because when people were talking about that so much last year it was about black women and white feminism.

it seems like only binary thinking is happening. disappointing to say the least. but it's obvious that that's what's happening since Oscar, so worried about black Hollywood boycotting them, didn't think twice about disinviting a trans woman and a world famous Asian soprano.

February 29, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I like Chris Rock and I respect the fact that he was in a tough position. But did he have to denigrate #askhermore? Women are fighting the same battle and not everything is sexism, but it sure seemed like an unnecessary shot to me. Instead he could have acknowledged with humour how white and male the casting of most movies is.

As for interviewing people at a mall, I like Billy Eichner, "Billy on the street" comedy bits way more, doing a mix of people from all racial backgrounds is both funnier and less queasy.
(let's go see how little black people know - that made me really uncomfortable).

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

At least Stacey Dash finally attended an oscars ceremony?

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKaa

I'll give you "Weirdest" for Dash, but worst for me was Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G intro for Room. Minions/dick joke aside, a white Briton posturing like that and saying he and his kind don't get the kind of recognition they deserve? Oof.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJames

Nat: Exactly. I don't know if the Academy ever would have thought of this but...Why couldn't Michael Pena have co-hosted? He might not be as famous as Chris Rock, but he delivered THE comedic performance of last year and having someone who's neither black nor white looking at Rock's material might have prevented or fixed the hackiest moments.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Is anyone talking about how Will and Jada Pinkett Smith got thrown under the bus?

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHustler

James: Well, Sacha Baron Cohen's characters are supposed to be MORONS.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Sarah Silverman's totally whacky presentation of the James Bond song making reference to whether Bond's a shower or a grower was really out of place - an insult to the artist who was about to preform the song.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

Sarah Silverman thought she was funny she never was or will be...I love that Rock made fun of everyone .

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I know Chris Rock had an impossible job considering the prior madness, but I just didn't like him at all.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

The bad ratings aren't surprising. Chris Rick did what he had to do, but it got to be too wasn't entertainment. It felt like a lecture.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I thought Chris was going somewhere when he brought up Jamie Foxx's win, since he hasn't really had a follow up Oscar worthy role since Ray (I forget that homeless cello movie with RDJ), but he went with a lame Ray Charles getting murdered joke instead. Yet maybe Halle Berry and Forest Whitaker have had a few decent roles since their wins, while Monique, J Hudson, and other African American winners haven't. Denzel seems to be a special case and Benico del Toro maybe got close with Sicario this year. But I think Rock's overall point that African American actors (along with other minority actors) want the opportunity for an Oscar worthy role and not just once was pretty relevant to the ceremony.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJames

I am in the camp that thinks he was given an impossible task, but generally, did okay in the beginning (even if the monologue was way too long and redundant). However, I found most of the subsequent skits on race to be unnecessary, cheap, unfunny, and distracting. It's supposed to be a show about celebrating the best in movies, not a 3 hour lecture to Hollywood on how black actors are ignored. (And Chris Rock did NOT seem like a movie fan, at all, so I would not ask him back). Most of the skits cut away to white actors laughing nervously, and then white presenters would come on, which just made the entire show awkward. Re: next year, what is the Academy going to do if no, or only one, African American is nominated? Also go into overdrive to make more changes? I also agree that the excessive focus on black actors who were not nominated is an insult to actors of every other race (Latino, Asian, etc.) who are frequently overlooked. I hope next year it just goes back to being a good show.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJono

Marcos - for any self-respecting gay man, no Oscar, Grammy or Nobel Peace Prize could possibly, conceivably compare to the overwhelming honour that is having Sarah Silverman present you.

I'm not remotely kidding.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Sarah Silverman had a huge torso last night

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

The Stacey Dash moment now officially replaces the infamous Rob Lowe-Snow White duet as the worst and most cringeworthy moment of Oscars history. Rob Lowe I bet is now sleeping much easier knowing that he is no longer the biggest fool of the Oscars.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

@ hustler

I am! But the Jada/Will bit seems to have been overshadowed by other parts of the ceremony in the last 24 hours. I would loooooooove to be a fly on the wall next time Chris is in the same room with both of them.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEz

@Ez, I had the same thought. I just imagine Jada reading Rock to filth. "Whatta you mean I'm from TV? I've been in more movies than you." Plus, how much money has Will made for the studios?

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

He'a great IMO. The gimmicks somehow work too.
Love the Jada burn LOL.
Thank god for that only By The Sea fan in the world though.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

Fantastic piece, Kieran, and on quick turnaround!

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Beautifully written. Great thoughts. I enjoyed reading it.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

SanFran Cinema: Discounting voice roles? Chris Rock: 26. Jada Pinkett Smith: 20. And since Jada Pinkett Smith is going back to the dumpster fire that is Gotham? Yeah, she doesn't even have the "but it's better than what I'm getting in movies" excuse to fall back on.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Worst Oscar show I have ever seen. So bad, I doubt I will ever watch it again. As an avid movie goer, this is very upsetting. I don't watch an award show to be preached at or lectured. Remember, you are not saving the planet, these are just movies. Ugh.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSean

Nathaniel thank you so much for mentioning the very strange / insulting absence of two performers from the Original Song category.... Just Why? These two songs were the least probable to win so they didn't even bother to ask them to perform?

That was one of the many questions i asked myself while watching this terribly boring show, where most of the jokes fell flat and the black community was just as insulted as anyone else during the terrible "Compton Theater segment". I asked myself many times how it felt to be in the audience and being treated like your work is crap just because you're not black or your work doesn't feature black actors like (So a mexican director winning three years in a row isn't considered diversity?). I really didn't like the way Bridge of Spies was laughed at just because a woman in Compton never heard about it...

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClément@Paris

And what did the 'Girl Scouts" thing had anything to do with the Oscars ??? Another terrible idea ....

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClément@Paris

Great article! I too felt uneasy about the Compton theater interviews, a sort of Anti-Oscar Oscar skit that not only felt condescending but misplaced, and it's not a genuinely black phenomena of not knowing the nominated films. Yes it does show the Academy being out of touch with a segment of the population (well probably a good 60% of the population), but I don't see how casting Bridge of Spies or Spotlight as irrelevant helps anything. As someone who loves movies, I hate the feeling that these movies for adults, varying quality notwithstanding, are out-of-touch jokes. But it certainly does speak to the different way movies are marketed to different areas, which is also problematic.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

I thought Rock had some genuinely interesting and funny moments, which is more than can be said for most of NPH, Ellen or MacFarlane.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBD

@Volvagia - I was surprised Pena wasn't even a presenter. Minority actor who got huge buzz in a big movie this year? That should've been enough for an invitation.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Can we stop calling Chris Rock's gig "unenviable?" Rock was given a platform to speak truth to the white establishment and somehow that's unenviable? You're basically projecting a white audience's discomfort with his material back onto Rock.

In the 1980s did Madonna have "the unenviable task" of stripping down to her underwear at the VMAs? Or do think she did it because she believed it and felt it and enjoyed it?

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W.

Hayden W. --Chris Rock took the job in October, long before the nominations and the second year in a row of all white acting nominees. I see what you're saying. There are obviously many ways in which hosting the Oscars is a dream job for a stand up comedian--huge platform, a decent paycheck, etc. What's unenviable, in my mind is the fact there is a lot of projecting this assumption that Chris Rock must want to address racism and #Oscarssowhite. So much so that he kind of had no choice not to "speak truth to the white establishment" (as you say) in a way that's in-line with his brand--whether he truly has the desire to or not. Not sure if I communicated that carefully, but so many people were looking to Chris Rock to be an attack-dog for events and tide-turning that took place after he took the gig. That's all I'm saying.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKieran Scarlett

@Kieran—He devoted his entire show to it. There's absolutely no reason why he would do that if he weren't deeply invested in the material, especially when you consider his public statements and long-held positions on these issues. He speaks freely and frequently about racism in Hollywood and America at large. His last Oscars hosting gig addressed these issues head-on. His monologue alone would've been enough to satisfy the Academy's critics if satisfying the Academy's critics was all he aimed for.

It's straight-up dumb to suggest that those critics set his agenda for him, or that he found himself in an unfortunate position. Acting like the choice was removed from him by nags in the Twitterverse undermines the credibility of the argument that #OscarsSoWhite critics are making. How it comes across is "Poor Chris Rock had the great misfortune of being required to say those mean things to us white people. I'm sure he felt like just as much of a hostage as we did!"

It's like the only way people can digest it is by believing he was acting against his will.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W.

The Asian joke, which was ALSO a Jewish joke, really made me unhappy, and really took power away from what Chris Rock might otherwise have been trying to do. And I had the same thought about opportunities and not making a good joke in a really obvious space.

March 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

The Weeknd ("Earned It") is a black artist, who was nominated for Best Song. Why wasn't HE a factor in this whole controversy?

Spike Lee WON the Honorary Oscar. He is a black filmmaker.

I find it annoying when Chris Rock and others failed to even mention this. I am still outraged it's not even worth taking note of.

March 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJason Travis

The Weeknd is black but a black Canadian who disassociates himself with black Americans and their struggle. Spike's honorary is irrelevant to the competitive ceremony of the season. Especially since there were two blockbuster black themed candidates for consideration. Which received single nominations for their white components.

March 2, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

@3rtful - ugh, I remember you. The "Race" person. Of all people, I KNEW you wouldn't understand.

By the way- there is NOTHING irrelevant about an Honorary Oscar. Shows how ignorant YOU are about that topic, especially since Spike Lee winning was a big deal.

March 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJason Travis

I'm such a Disney villain around these parts. Spike's honorary Oscar is a big deal to Spike and me. But it is irrelevant to the competitive ceremony.

Since you're an oblivious white person you'll only ever see black people talking about race as those response for the problems of it. I can't help you with that!

March 3, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

@3rtful: I sense that you're an oblivious human being in desperate need of a social life and awareness of black culture. You must have grown up watching Disney movies. You need psychiatric help dear, I can recommend one of my colleagues. Though he will insist you change your name first to something legible.

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